Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 07:48 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 07:48 | SYDNEY

Defence White Paper: The return of warning time


Hugh White

4 May 2009 09:30

To me the most important feature of the Defence White Paper is a pervasive ambivalence about how quickly Australia’s strategic circumstances are changing and how fast we might want to change our defence capabilities in response. I explore this ambivalence in an oped in the Oz today, but there only touch on what is one of the most interesting and potentially important ideas in the new White Paper — the revival of warning time.

One major strand of argument in the White Paper is that we can defer consideration of more substantial changes to our force posture in response to Asia’s transformation until the nature and consequences of that transformation are clear. It suggests in several places (for example paragraphs 3.17–3.19) that if circumstances deteriorate Australia would build additional forces, specifically mentioning the possibility of buying more submarines beyond the 12 proposed (paragraph 9.9).

In fact when we get to the bottom lines, the key difference between the Government’s policy as set out in the White Paper and the policy I proposed in A Focused Force is that they believe that Australia can and should defer big changes to its defence posture until the need becomes clearer than it is today, and I do not.              

We touched on this topic in our defence debate last week, where I said that I am very attracted to the idea of deferring decisions as long as one can, but that I’m not sure we have the luxury of assuming that we will get clearer signs than we have today of strategic change in time to build the forces we would need to respond. 

This is not a new question in our defence policy. The concept of warning time was critical to the defence policies of the 1970s and 1980s, when we argued that we could expect a decade’s warning of the development of threats which went beyond the relatively low level contingencies that we planned against back then. I sense in the new White Paper (especially in paragraph 3.14, though where they say ‘preferably’ I’m sure they meant ‘probably’) a willingness to assume that a concept that worked back then remains valid today.

I think that assumption is invalid, because circumstances have changed. Looking back with some benefit of hindsight, I think it is clear that the confidence we had that Australia would receive long warning of a sharp decline in strategic circumstances was based on our deep confidence in the durability of US primacy.

Then that confidence was justified. Today it is not: indeed the major issue for defence policy is whether, and on what terms, US primacy can be sustained. The warning signs we looked for in the 1980s are already flashing. I do not think we can assume we have long warning of how Asia’s future will evolve, and probably not enough to build major new capabilities. And in the end it seems neither does the government, because the White Paper says exactly this itself in paragraph 3.13.   

Photo by Flickr user wwarby used under a Creative Commons license.